Mark Norris, the powerful majority leader of the Tennessee state Senate and the subject of last week's Flyer cover story, has made no secret of his belief in shoring up the authority of state governments, in general, and of his own state government, in particular. Norris, a Republican who resides on a farm in Fisherville in suburban Shelby County, told the Flyer that he discerns in the state's population at large — and has within his own governing philosophy — an aversion to the encroachment of centralized federal power.
Norris, the current chairman of the national Council of State Governments, is also an advocate for a "convention of the states" under Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution, to enhance the power of state governments vis-à-vis the federal government.
So far so good. Such beliefs stem from a rich and honorable ancestry in American political life, with Thomas Jefferson recognized as perhaps the foremost advocate of governmental decentralization.z
The emphasis on state-government perogatives has a nether side to it, though, and that is a corollary belief that the enhancement of state power necessarily means the diminution of local authority.
This doctrine was freshly stated last week by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who doubles as speaker of the state Senate and is a kingpin in state government. In a session with reporters, Ramsey expressed his support for a measure that would abrogate the local-option provisions of the guns-in-parks bill of 2009.
"Here is my reasoning on that," Ramsey said: "I think something as important as Second Amendment rights needs to be statewide. Local governments are just the opposite of the federal government. The federal government exists because of us as states. We adopted a constitution. We established the federal government. Local government is just the opposite. Local government is a political subdivision of the state."
Nor is this view confined to the issue of whether local jurisdictions could opt to continue bans of weapons in public parks. In recent years, especially during the new era of Republican control in state government, there have been numerous instances of aggrandizing state power at the expense of local self-government.
A law was enacted overriding the ability of cities and counties to pass anti-discrimination ordinances. The original Norris-Todd bill of 2011 and several sequels transformed the landscape of public schools in Shelby County. A "charter-authorizer" bill sure to be passed in the current legislative session would essentially render the state supreme and local school boards impotent in decisions about whether to establish new charter schools.
The Nashville-based official charged with administering the new statewide Achievement School District boasts openly that he is not responsible to any elected local board. Last week numerous judges and lawyers from Shelby County made a pilgrimage to the state capital to plead against a bill that would arbitrarily eliminate two civil judges from the county's over-crowded judicial document.
Whatever happened to the idea that government is best when it is closest to the people? How is it that the party of "small governent" is more interested in keeping power at the state level than allowing its cities and counties the right to exercise it?
The fact is, government in Tennessee could stand a little decentralizing, too.